The second character I happened across was a day after the first, whilst my father and I were cycling past an oast house set in deep countryside by a reservoir. I say ‘deep countryside’ but, as the astute reader knows, such hardly exists in the immediate bestrew of London, and so I ask graciously, with a knowing smile, that reader to brave invention. Really, we were some thirty minutes from London Bridge, in Kent.
She was a slim will-o’-the-wisp lady sitting perfectly erect on a wooden bench by the doorway to the oast house and seemed to be frozen on the spot. Her stare transfixed straight ahead of her, she had large metal framed glasses, bedraggled long hair, as grey as the steel frames, and flowing clothes in muted earthen colours, which fell around her in as loose and as raggedy a fashion as her hair.
Her face, her entire body, was gaunt and grey and she looked as though she were some harmless imaginary being, a living ornament of the earth and the quietude surrounding her. Again, my father made some remark, which startled her attention, but she took the intrusion with affection, and the startlement realised itself in a slight turning of the head, a closed-lipped smile then a mention in a soporific tone, mellifluous in its kindness, that the oast house and sanctuary were closed for the day.
Around her neck were some knockabout binoculars which, together with her large glasses, and her furrowed get up, cut an ornithological resonance (she was owlish, in fact, that’s it – an imaginary, kind owl in human form, she was owlish) and drew our attention to two birdwatching huts across the way, to which we retired for a few minutes, if only to appreciate the calm.
On our return, though we had been looking out at the few birds in the openland selected for viewing, the area which she too was facing, it was apparent that she wasn’t really birdwatching but rather just existing in this hidden recluse, on the day the oast house was closed, for sanctuary. We found that she had ambled from her perch to look out over some allotments at the rear, and, hearing our approach once more, she turned to us.
My father asked about the birds.
“Oh, the real professionals,” she said in that languid voice, “are up by the road bridge by the reservoir. You’ll see them there. I like the birds but – it’s lovely here. It’s so peaceful.”
We acknowledged this warmly as I took her to be a fairy, someone totally free of the stifled grey London world I inhabited, who’d no doubt suffered her own pain, but had become herself in this world of nature, kind and gentle as she was, and content, utterly content in the beautiful, calm simplicity of the still countryside.
Bough Beech Nature Reserve & Visitor Centre is a sequestered nook in Winkhurst Green, Ide Hill, Sevenoaks, Kent TN14 6LD